Each day on the practice field, Deantre Lewis looks a little bit more like the player who jumped onto the national scene as a freshman, recording over 900 yards of offense and scoring six touchdowns. But the path back to the football field hasn't been easy for him, as even he admits he thought his playing days were over at one point.
"About a month after the injury, I really thought it was the end of my career, that it would stop right there at my freshman year," said Lewis after practice on Wednesday. "But my family members, they just stayed behind me and told me to just keep going and that this is my dream and what I'm supposed to do. It's just adversity that I've got to overcome, because football always came easy to me earlier on in my life."
During his absence, Lewis says the outpour of support he received from the Sun Devil community kept his spirit strong, as not only coaches and other players continuously offered him their support, but fans and fellow students as well.
"It really meant a lot," he reflected. "It made me feel like I was wanted here. They made me feel like I didn't just disappear off the team. I really felt the support and it helped me strive to get better."
Last season Lewis used his redshirt to sit out and rehabilitate from the injury. He worked with doctors back home in California before coming back out to Tempe to work with the training staff, trying to regain his form and overcome nerve issues that affected his ability to play. The process has been slow and daunting for Lewis, as he's gone from basic conditioning to finally rejoining his teammates on the practice field this spring.
"I would say the (rehabilitation) process has been more mental than anything," he remarked. "There have been a lot of times where I've been up and down. My lows have been really low. And my highs have been high, but not really high because I know I'm capable of doing better.
"My biggest limitation right now is all mental," he continued. "Like, physically, me being able to cut on it, I know my leg is going to be there for me, because I've done it before so I know it's going to be fine."
Lewis' progress has grown by leaps and bounds since the start of camp. From having to wear a green no contact jersey the first couple of days to being second on the depth chart at running back, he's leaving very little doubt whether or not Sun Devil fans will see him playing in maroon and gold again.
"I am very close," he said with a smile when asked if he feels he's returning to old form. "I'm not going to put a percentage on it, but today it felt good. My leg felt normal today. The recovery is coming back quick now. The last step is just coming out here, and it's coming along.
"I've actually been happy, because being out a whole year just watching, I didn't like that at all," he added. "So this year it's been going good. I've been a bit sore, but that's really nothing new."
As a freshman, Deantre Lewis provided instant offense for the Sun Devils. His speed and elusiveness complimented the hard-nosed running style of the other Sun Devil running backs and made him a big play threat the moment he stepped on the field. Despite the year long hiatus, Lewis insists he still has his speed, but only needs to learn to trust his body more as he continues to work throughout the offseason.
"Honestly, right now, I feel I can still run a 4.4.," he said proudly. "My speed is coming back a lot faster. In the beginning I didn't know if I'd be able to get my speed back, but I feel it coming back each practice now. I seem to be more explosive now, so I don't doubt that it'll be back in time for the season.
"At times I feel the same explosion, but other times I feel like I'm not trusting my leg, which is something that I've got to work on, because I know my leg is there and nothing is going to happen to it."
Last Saturday, as the team hosted its first scrimmage o the spring inside Sun Devil Stadium, Deantre Lewis stood out as he collected 10 carries for 39 yards and touchdown while also catching three passes for 15 yards and another score. Despite that though he still feels there's room for him to improve going forward.
"You know, I've been out for a year and half, I'm just trying to get used to it," he commented. "I felt like I could have done better than I did, overall, throughout the whole game and not just at the end. I put a lot of pressure on myself just to give it all I can and I feel like I didn't do that in the scrimmage, so I'm working hard to correct that."
He'll have plenty of chances to improve and work his way back into form the rest of spring practice as the Sun Devils will be without both Cameron Marshall and Kyle Middlebrooks for the rest of camp as both recover from surgery. The additional reps will give him the chance to physically improve his leg strength while also working to trust his body against the grind.
"With them being out it gives me more opportunities to just use my leg and have it come back faster," said Lewis. "I'll have more time to used to it, cut on it, but my role right now is just to get better. I need to learn this new offense as much as I can so that when they come back I'll be able to help them."
Working with the running backs has been new running backs coach, Larry Porter, who was a late addition to the coaching staff but has been quick to make an impression on the players. With a track record of developing a number of excellent running backs throughout his career, Porter has already had an influence Lewis in just a few short weeks.
"He's taught me a lot of stuff," he said. "As a running back, you've got to be both mentally and physically tough. The physical part is something I didn't really have, because taking a lot of hits, that's not my thing. I'm more of a speed guy, so I like to avoid the hits, but in order to go to the next level, I've got to be mentally and physically ready."
Lewis, who was one of the more vocal and enthusiastic players in favor of Coach Graham after the hire, says that his new head coach has been supportive and understanding throughout the entire process. While he doesn't feel pressured to get back on the field to fight for playing time, Lewis is excited for the chance to show his coach what he's capable of.
"Coach Graham has been behind me 100 percent," he said. "He's been pushing me since day one. He told me it's all mental. He was like, 'Your legs are not going to fall off, it's going to be there at the end of the day.' He is actually helping me get better.
"He believes in me, so I'm going to give him my all."